Lawfulness of government visa algorithm challenged

Written by Sam Trendall on 19 June 2020 in News
News

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants files judicial review 

Credit: PA

A judicial review has been launched to challenge the lawfulness of an algorithm used by the Home Office to process visa applications.

Charity the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has filed the review asking the High Court to find the so-called automated streaming tool unlawful and suspend its further use until a “substantive review” can be conducted. The JCWI, whose action is supported by “tech justice” organisation Foxglove, argues that the algorithm “discriminates on the basis of nationality—by design”.

The review claims that every application made for a visa to enter the UK is graded by the streaming tool on a traffic-light system of green, amber and red. Following this algorithmic assessment, applications are then passed on to government officials.

The Home Office maintains “a secret list of suspect nationalities”, the JCWI said, with applicants from those countries more likely to be graded red and, consequently, to face “intensive scrutiny” from assessors. They are then ultimately more likely to see their application refused, thus creating what JCWI describes as “a feedback loop… in which biased enforcement and visa statistics reinforce which countries stay on the list of suspect nationalities”.


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Prior to filing the review, the migrant-rights charity has corresponded with the Home Office but claims the department has “refused to provide JCWI with meaningful information about the algorithm”. The review will claim that the streaming tool is “opaque” and that, other than a list of nationalities, “it is unclear what other factors are taken into account in grading applications”.

Chai Patel, legal policy director of JCWI, said: “The Home Office’s ‘streaming tool’ has for years had a major effect on who has the right to come here to work, study, or see loved ones. And it has been run in a way that – by the Home Office’s admission – discriminates, singling out some people as ‘suspect’ and others as somehow more trustworthy, just because of where they come from. This is the digital hostile environment.”

The judicial review is not the first time concerns have been raised about the streaming tool. Earlier this year, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt released a report in which he encouraged the Home Office to be more open about the role of the technology and how it is designed to work.

“Some stakeholders remain deeply suspicious of the streaming tool, believing that it unfairly discriminates against particular applicants, resulting in high levels of refusals,” he said. 

Bolt added: “The more cryptic the Home Office is seen to be about the way visa decisions are made, the more it will fuel concerns about bias and poor practice. The department’s reputation and the staff who work in this area would be better served if its first instinct were to be open and engaging rather than seemingly reluctant to reveal more than it absolutely has to.”

The Home Office has stressed that the tool does not make any visa decisions itself, but is only used to filter and direct applications to officials.

In response to the launch of the judicial review, a spokesperson for the department said: “It would be inappropriate to comment whilst legal proceedings are ongoing.”

JCWI and Foxglove are being represented by solicitors Leigh Day.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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